'Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,' by Paul Theroux

A long-ago voyage revisited: Prickly Paul Theroux mellows as he retraces classic train trip

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Persistently and peerlessly peripatetic, Paul Theroux professes to travel light, yet he brings a lot of baggage wherever he goes.

Author of 15 insightful journals chronicling his jaunts around the planet as well as 27 works of often compelling fiction, Theroux has certainly covered plenty of ground in his 67 years.

Beginning in 1975 with "The Great Railway Bazaar," which chronicled his four-month train journey through Europe and Asia, Theroux has steadily prowled in pursuit of experience, observation and insight; in short, all the grist for a literary mind.

By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin. ($28)

In his latest effort, Theroux re-traces old tracks. Like the proverbial painter of the Golden Gate Bridge, the writer is starting over. How much has changed he wondered in the 33 years since his first rail journey took him from London to Turkey through Iran and India to southeast Asia and back via Japan and the Trans-Siberian Railway?

Clearly, a great deal is different, both in the world without and the world within that restless consciousness that is Paul Theroux.

Remarking how seldom travel writers re-explore the places they wrote about, he decided to re-visit his original route as closely as geopolitical imperatives would permit, to see what and whom he could see.

He resolved to travel lightly and with little luggage or electronics, living off the land and finding what and who he needs as he goes.

He sets out on this rough railroad itinerary, dividing his journey and observations into a succession of overnight trains linking a necklace of countries and cities of the great Euro-Asian landmass.

From London to Istanbul he rides Eurostar and Orient Express. To skirt Iraq and Iran, he transits the former Soviet "Stans" and trains around the Indian sub-continent to Sri Lanka, then through Burma and Cambodia and Vietnam into China, with a side trip to Laos.

He rides the rails across Japan before boarding the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Vladivostok for the long trip back to London. It is a long and circuitous route, perhaps, but one jam- packed with personal perspective.

Along the way he encounters a cast of characters as colorful as any novelist could create, ranging from Prince Charles, Arthur Clarke and Pico Iyer to local literati and obscure fellow travelers.

Despite Theroux's efforts to maintain the detachment of the anonymous traveler, he both touches and is touched by those he meets.

In fact, contrary to his previous sentiments, he goes out of his way to improve the material life of a rickshaw runner he befriends in Burma.

In the end, it is a much mellowed observer who makes his way back to London.

Theroux fans are likely to enjoy every episode of this latest adventure.

Post-Gazette travel editor David Bear can be reached at 412-263-1629 or dbear@post-gazette.com .


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